Thursday, February 25, 2010

Committing to Sustainability?

In late January, DeGioia signed the Sustainable Campus Charter, along with other members of the Global University Leadership Forum (GULF) in Davos, Switzerland. The pledge involves a commitment to three principles: demonstrating respect for nature, ensuring long-term sustainable development, and alignment of the University’s ‘core message’ with sustainability. The 25 university presidents in the forum agreed to set ‘measurable goals’ to achieve these goals.
Now for some perspective. Is this just an example of what the policy wonks at Georgetown might call a toothless international agreement, or does it represent a real step towards sustainability (whatever that concretely means) for Georgetown? We called on two seasoned Eco-Actioners: our current President Kristin Ng, and Mike Durante, a former board member.

Kristin Ng: Empty Promises?

When Tripti sent me the link to this article, the first thing I replied with was “lol.”
Not a great gut reaction. Georgetown’s pledge to “support sustainable practices in campus development and operations” is all good and well, but I feel that it’s mostly a fluff piece.
The signing of this charter means Georgetown will commit to three principles:
1) Respect for nature by considering sustainability when planning buildings on campus. This is already implemented, so Georgetown signing this doesn’t mean anything. We’ve ALREADY committed to getting LEED certification for all new buildings – why? Well, besides that we’re saving money on energy costs, it’s a GREAT talking point to recruit new students. Just the other day I heard a tour guide talking about the solar panels on the roof of the ICC. Come on, now. Let’s be honest. Those account for a small fraction of the energy used by the ICC at any given time.
2) Long-term sustainable development with environmental goals. As far as I can tell, this is just planning with the environment in mind. We already do this. As a confined campus in a major metropolitan city, we already have limited resources. There are no numbers here, no targets, no dates. Weak.
3) Aligning the university’s core mission with a living laboratory for sustainability. I don’t even understand what this means.
Mike pointed out, and with relatively good reason, that the President’s Climate Commitment didn’t really have any teeth either. But I still think the PCC is better than the Sustainable Campus Charter. Though there are no sanctions à la the United Nations, there are currently 667 signatories. This gives the PCC a bit more influence than the SCC. The PCC doesn’t give hard and fast dates, but they do aim to be carbon neutral, a much more concrete goal than “planning sustainability.” The PCC offers instead guidelines for dates.
Though I’m glad to see that Georgetown administration is getting more involved in sustainability, I hope that they commit to something more and something truly comprehensive.

Mike Durante: Reason for Hope?

On the opposite spectrum end of the spectrum from Kristin, my initial response to President DeGioia's signing of the Sustainable Campus Charter was (and I quote), "very cool!!"

Now I wouldn't call myself exactly ecstatic over Georgetown's moderate commitments to sustainability, but I do think we're headed in the right direction, and the president's public support for our efforts is helpful for several reasons. First, it gives student activists something to rally around in the future. Second, it broadens Georgetown's commitment to sustainability, which now mainly focuses solely on operations. The Charter text mentions the importance of dedications to environmental sustainability in research and curriculum, which tend to be more lacking than campus operational improvements. The universities involved also agreed to set measurable goals for sustainable development, though those have yet to be announced. This statement seems like a cop-out of sorts, but I think it makes more sense for each university to create tangible, meaningful, and attainable goals for the short-term future, rather than dedicating themselves to a goal like carbon neutrality in 2050, which is certainly desirable, but not necessarily helpful in making relevant progress.

The Presidents' Climate Commitment would, as Kristin notes, be a stronger step in the right direction for DeGioia and the University. It does state the ultimate goal of climate neutrality and sets out steps to plan for it. However, there isn't much in the Commitment that Georgetown isn't already doing. We have performed a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, we have an institutional structure dedicated to reducing our carbon footprint (the Sustainability Action Committee), we've made a LEED building commitment, and we've taken steps to promote waste minimization. Again, there is so much more we can do, but Georgetown is clearly headed in the right direction. I'd argue that - especially considering the President's Climate Commitment has little to no accountability (except for progress reports... as if universities don't get annual green report cards anyway...) - Georgetown's actions and this recent commitment set us on a course towards climate neutrality as well as the average PCC-signatory school

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